Whatever their plans, the stakeholders in the Middle East must remember that clever plans to remake the Middle East have hitherto been remarkable for their inability to anticipate countermoves by opposing forces.
Tension is increasing all across the Middle East and the United States is again falling into a trap set up by its so-called allies to act against its own interests by getting deeply involved in what might turn out to be an escalating conflict. The recent victories by the Syrian Army and its Russian allies, which suggest that the active phase of the Syrian civil war will soon be drawing to a close, means that the perennial unrest in the region will be shifting gears and possibly leading to new conflict in areas that have until now been quiet. The lack of any real American policy for the region will enable the Saudis and Israelis, who have hegemonistic dreams of their own, to manipulate a casus belli, quite likely starting in Lebanon, where Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri recently resigned his office and fled to Saudi Arabia, claiming that he was fearing for his life due to his resistance to Iran’s influence over his country.
Hariri headed a coalition pulled together in 2016 that included nearly all of Lebanon’s main parties, including Hezbollah. It took office in a political deal that made Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian who has an understanding with Hezbollah, president. The inclusion of Hezbollah and the presence of a friendly Aoun was seen as a victory for Iran.
The Hariri resignation was certainly carried out in collusion with Riyadh, to include the damning of Iranian influence as his reason for leaving. It suggests that the Saudis and Israelis, who have been hyperbolically claiming that Tehran is about to take control of much of the Middle East, are feeling confident enough to move towards some kind of showdown with the Mullahs. As a first step, expected deteriorating sectarian interaction between Sunni and Shi‘ite Muslims in Lebanon will eliminate any possibility of a bipartisan and functioning government, providing a pretext for foreign intervention to stabilize the situation.
The United States is clearly privately approving the Israeli and Saudi moves, as Washington, Riyadh and Tel Aviv have all adamantly opposed the existence of the Lebanese coalition dominated by Aoun and Hezbollah’s Nasrullah because of the Hezbollah presence. The next step will be for Israel fighter aircraft to increase their incursions into Lebanese airspace in light of the alleged instability north of the border derived from the claims by Hariri that he was about to be assassinated. The activity would be intended to provoke a Lebanese response that would escalate into an incident that will lead to a major strike to bring the Beirut government down. The ultimate objective is to create a Saudi and Israeli-led grand Sunni alliance, which might be a fantasy, to pushback Iranian influence in the entire region. Lebanon’s Hezbollah, opposed by the Saudis because it is Shi’a and by Israel because of its missile arsenal, would be targeted as the first marker to fall.
A supportive Washington role in the conflict will of course be indispensable and there is every sign that it would be forthcoming, with grand strategists like Generals Mattis and McMaster no doubt envisioning a roll-up of Shi’as starting in Lebanon and working eastward while the Saudis continue their aggression against Yemen to counter alleged Iranian interference in that area. Israel will also undoubtedly step up its attacks on Syrian Army positions, claiming that it is striking Hezbollah, to further complicate any countermoves by the Iranians. Israel has made it very clear that it will attack any Iranian military positions that are established in Syria.
It is important to recall that clever plans to remake the Middle East have hitherto been remarkable for their inability to anticipate countermoves by opposing forces. Bashar al-Assad has survived an onslaught directed by the very same alignment now out to reverse a perceived Iranian-led Shi’a ascendancy and Hezbollah proved so successful against Israel that Israeli war plans now rule out any action on the ground due to the high casualty levels experienced in 1990-2000. The US would be playing a supporting role in any conflict, but might well suffer collateral damage if Iran is drawn in directly, a development that could easily lead to armed conflict between Washington and Tehran.